Citizenship Amendment Act: What Does India Like More than Glorifying Soldiers? Demonising Protesting Students

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Citizenship Amendment Act: What Does India Like More than Glorifying Soldiers? Demonising Protesting Students

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The biggest worry a student should have is failing an exam, but in India’s universities, students are weeping over the state of our democracy. Nowhere was this more apparent than in yesterday’s viral video of a young student sobbing with rage at the cameras trained on her. The girl, an outstation student from Ranchi, expresses her anguish at facing the brutality of the police in Delhi, a city where she thought she would be safe for students and questions why their right to protest is being trampled upon. “Yeh democracy hai,” she asks.

Across the country, students are up in arms, organising demonstrations, speaking up against the Centre’s controversial Citizenship Act. They are expressing solidarity with the students of Jamia Millia Islamia, unafraid of meeting the same fate as their peers – heavy-handed police action that saw nearly 100 students detained, and many admitted to the hospitals after injuries sustained in clashes with police (and perhaps other elements as well, if viral videos are to be believed).

Over the weekend, Delhi saw a spate of violence that began when police personnel surrounded the Jamia Millia Islamia campus and began a crackdown on students: Tear gas was used, flash grenades were lobbed, and lathi charges were made. This was a response to a protest that allegedly turned violent, resulting in property damage after outsiders joined in. The proctor of Jamia spoke to journalists, saying that police stormed the campus without provocation to attack students and staff.

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Protest against controversial citizenship amendement bill turned violent when Delhi Police shot tear gas and beaten the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, India on Decemeber 13, 2019.

Photo by Javed Sultan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

While the harsh measures used against the students at Jamia were meant to suppress dissent among India’s students, it instead sparked off a wave of solidarity that surged across India’s campuses. Aligarh Muslim University was one of the first to follow Jamia’s lead, and once again, police were called in to quell the situation. But the sentiment of dissatisfaction spread faster than any containment measures that the authorities could contrive, and within a day of the crackdown, the stir had spread to campuses across the country, from Ahmedabad to Chennai to Mumbai. A nationwide protest has been called for on December 19, and it’s all because a few students chose to exercise their freedom of expression and democratic right to dissent.

The widespread agitation is long overdue. Because students, despite being quite literally the future of this country, have been on the receiving end of a sustained vilification campaign for years now. And as the treatment meted out to those at Jamia starkly underlined, this might be probably the worst time in Indian history to be a student.

Spend even a week watching TV news channels, and you’ll find that the only thing the media loves as much as glorifying soldiers is demonising students. Perhaps it’s resentment at those benefiting from subsidised education, but the student bodies of central universities are often depicted as a lazy, hedonistic, and rebellious lot majoring in manufacturing anti-national sentiment. Who can forget the comical BJP MLA keeping a meticulous count of empty booze bottles and used condoms on the Jawaharlal University campus in 2016? This was nearly four years ago, and the character assassination has continued unchecked, complete with fake news and out-of-context pictures. This unfair depiction has resulted in widespread apathy toward how students are treated by authorities, and not even the shocking images of violence emanating from Delhi are capable of breaking the trance regular people have willingly called upon themselves.

students, despite being quite literally the future of this country, have been on the receiving end of a sustained vilification campaign for years now.

Of all the central universities that have been vilified, perhaps none has been painted with as black a brush as JNU. The students of JNU are on the receiving end of more insidious accusations than just being called perverts or drunks; their student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Shehla Rashid were among the first people to be accused of belonging to the made-up “Tukde-Tukde Gang” (another favourite boogeyman of right-leaning news channels like Republic TV) and being “anti-nationals”. Doctored videos were released, with the intention of tagging outspoken, opinionated young students as traitors to the country. It’s a pattern that seems to be repeating itself. After Sunday’s events, fact-checking websites are once again debunking videos gone viral, which are being used – by BJP leaders like Amit Malviya and the IT Cell troll army – to spread misinformation about AMU students raising supposedly anti-Hindu slogans. (Spoiler alert: They were anti-Hindutva slogans.)

The same happened during the recent JNU protest against the fee hike. A picture of a woman holding a placard saying “RSS Murdabad” that went viral was from three years ago. But fiction spreads faster than facts, and as a result our resentment toward students only seems to be growing.

At the fee hike protests, once again the students were lathi-charged. At the same time as the peaceful students’ stir, lawyers in Delhi got into violent confrontations with the police over an unrelated issue. The lawyers beat up policemen and passersby, with their actions caught on camera, but the police force still came down harder on the students. This contrast, as well as the way this weekend’s videos of the violence in Delhi showed men in civilian clothes attacking students, makes it clear how entrenched this anti-student line of thinking is in society. For the rest, check out the bile on Twitter.

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PM Modi and the BJP are condemning the protestors for causing property damage (even though it hasn’t been proved that protestors were the culprits, and videos showing police damaging vehicles outside AMU are being circulated).

Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

PM Modi and the BJP are condemning the protestors for causing property damage (even though it hasn’t been proved that protestors were the culprits, and videos showing police damaging vehicles outside AMU are being circulated). But maybe they need a quick reminder of history. Modi himself participated in student protests in Gujarat in 1974, and the BJP can trace its genesis to the nationwide student protests against the Indira Gandhi government in that same year. Modi and the BJP’s debt to student agitation is outlined in a piece by journalist Raghu Karnad where he points out that “Narendra Modi’s own website dedicates a page to the Navnirman Movement – in which student protestors brought entire cities to a halt with its ‘extremism’ in 1974 – and Modi’s own role in it.” Even Arun Jaitley made his foray into politics as a student leader.

Protests have always been a part of student life in India. But what has changed over the years? How have we gone from patting the back of our students to beating them with batons?

Today, any student with an opinion, especially one that is against the establishment is branded dangerous. Not only are they regularly demonised, but they also seem to be neglected by the Centre when it comes to allocating funds, as the recent slashing of the education budget showed – as if it’s teaching them a lesson. But maybe it’s time to not quell their protests but address their anger. We owe India’s students that much – because even though we promised them an education, this country threw them into a revolution.

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